When Woody Guthrie branded
his guitar with the sign, "This machine kills fascists," he was trying to
illustrate his belief in the power of music as a political tool.
Woody's ghost was invoked several times on Monday night by Libertyville
native Tom Morello and English folk singer Billy Bragg as the multiartist-political
activist Tell Us the Truth tour stopped at the Park West. But the performers
didn't always remember the primary rules for what makes political rock music
Above and beyond a strong message and a potent sense of humor, the
greatest political rock songs work because they're strong rock songs, first
and foremost. Too much of the music offered up at the Park West in protest
of corporate globalization and media consolidation was wordy, pedantic and
tuneless. And worst of all, it didn't rock.
Properly wielded, an acoustic guitar may indeed stop fascists in their
tracks. But wouldn't a hard-charging rhythm section and a little feedback be
even more efficient?
Headliner Bragg envisioned the tour (which started last weekend at
political meetings in Madison, Wis., and is set to culminate next week at
fair trade protests in Miami) as a modern hootenanny. "This is what activist
music should be like," he said.
But the message was often muddled: The speakers assumed they were
preaching to the converted, and never bothered to explain confusing acronyms
such as "FTAA" (Free Trade Area of the Americas) and "IMF" (International
Monetary Fund), much less the complicated issues behind them. And many of
the songs were a snooze.
As a leader of the Chambers Brothers, Lester Chambers may be a '60s
legend, but his rote blues and cover of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready"
(performed twice, at the beginning and end of the show) were nothing
special. Only his hit "Time Has Come Today" showed any real spark.
As a would-be modern Guthrie, Bragg has always straddled the line between
inspiring and annoyingly preachy. He opened his set with his biggest hit,
the pro-diversity anthem "Sexuality," and he shined during his performance
of the recent anti-war song "The Price of Oil." But he bogged down during
hookless ditties such as "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward" and "Upfield,"
with its celebration of "socialism of the heart" (a phrase that's ultimately
as meaningless as "compassionate conservatism").
Best known as the six-string dynamo behind Rage Against the Machine and
Audioslave, local hero Morello proved himself to be captivating while
singing in a sub-Johnny Cash baritone and strumming on an acoustic guitar in
his alternate guise as the Night Watchman. But again, fans couldn't help but
wonder if songs such as "This House Has Gone Up in Flames" wouldn't have
been even more potent in a full band setting.
Though he was advertised as a special guest, R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills
merely tinkled the keyboards during a few of the group jams. And Steve
Earle, who doesn't join the tour until tomorrow, was sorely missed.
Boots Riley of the Oakland, Calif., hip-hop crew the Coup was by far the
most entertaining -- and most gripping -- performer of the evening. His raps
juxtaposed the painful personal costs of poverty with sarcastic advice on "5
Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O." Even better was "Wear Clean Draws," a litany
of practical yet radical encouragements to his 6-year-old daughter.
"Tell your teacher I say princesses are evil/The way they got their money
is they killed people," Riley rapped. This may not have been political
analysis on the level of Chalmers Johnson or Lewis Lapham, but it brought
the message of the Tell Us the Truth Tour home in a way that many of the
other performers didn't.